Thursday, September 29, 2005

It's "buy a friend a book week"

and the details are here. Buy a friend a book for no good reason.

Miscellaneous light reading

An Australian police procedural, Kittyhawk Down by Garry Disher (not bad, quite decent writing though a bit too serious for my taste, but it's the second installment in a series & I found it almost impossible to get a handle on the characters, it really felt like I was supposed to have read the other one first); and the spectacularly good Peeps, an excellent & original vampire novel by Scott Westerfeld. (Here are some reviews with more details about the book.) I quite like vampire fiction without being obsessed with it (I hear a lot of people say they're fed up with it, but I think that all those years they were reading vampire novels and getting sick of them, I was in grad school with only the occasional serial-killer thriller to relieve the heavy-duty intellectual stuff), but this book's really remarkably good (it would make a great movie, too). Excellent even-numbered chapters with real-life parasite details as well--I think my favorite is wolbachia--clearly I must get the book recommended in the bibliography at the end of the novel, Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex.

Oh and an e-mail

I just sent to a colleague led me to Google a favorite old teacher/mentor Wayne Koestenbaum, there's a great interview with him at www.outrate.net (the book I especially had in mind & was recommending was Jackie Under My Skin, a book I love and cannot recommend too highly; his two most recent--which I have not read--are Model Homes [poems, with a very nice publicity postcard that I have up on the wall in my office at Columbia] and the lavish and luxuriant Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes). In my opinion Koestenbaum is one of the best prose stylists writing today in America; I TA'd for him a lot of years ago for the institutionally-embedded-but-also-quite-excellent course "Daily Themes" at Yale, and was wholly won over by his sensibility; he is a more gothic writer than I am, and also has lots of Prada-and-other-highly-designed-type-stuff that is not really my bag in my daily life, but he has a spectacularly good ear and intellect and should be trusted on all things having to do with language. I just like it when someone I know has such a profoundly aesthetic sensibility that I can dissent from their individual choices on the grounds of taste and yet approve the precision of their ear/palate/eye (whichever metaphor you prefer: for me it's always ear when I'm talking about literature/writing and--obnoxiously--eye when I'm talking about copy-editing [I have a better eye than ear, and this is much to my chagrin as a writer], but I deny the more obviously physiological senses and prefer to avoid the terminology of taste). (Here's the link for my earlier post on why Wayne's essay "My 80s" was my favorite in the excellent Best American Essays 2004, edited by Louis Menand. If you don't have this already, do get it; it's really excellent, tons of spectacular essays & just what you would want if you're teaching a writing course in creative nonfiction. But also enjoyable for light reading.)

Big Star

updated, in this piece by Douglas Wolk in Slate. I have a minor obsession with Big Star, I think that the two-for-one combo #1 Record and Radio City is about the best value for money you could possibly get (track #10 is one of my top-ten favorite songs of all time, but it's all great). And I also love the Big-Star-esque Bandwagonesque (I like this whole album so much that there is no point picking out individual tracks, and it's only--unbelievably--$5.99 from Amazon! seriously, put it in one of your supersaver-free-shipping orders, you cannot go wrong with this) by the altogether excellent Teenage Fanclub. Off now to satisfy music-listening compulsion.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Little-known books

by well-known authors: check out this really excellent essay by Paul Collins for the Village Voice. (Link via Conversational Reading.)

I got a nice mention

recently in a Columbia Spectator article by Erin Durkin.

Also another one in a short piece about book blogs in the latest issue of Rave Magazine, not online; the author is John L'Ecuyer, a former student of mine. (I have "a witty and unpretentious take on 'light reading'" and offer "quirky book recommendations across an array of genres" and "an interesting glimpse into [my] own creative processes of writing a novel." Also I am in good company, the other two blogs mentioned are the Literary Saloon and Amardeep Singh. And here's one of L'Ecuyer's own short stories online.)

Just finished reading

Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I was seized yesterday afternoon with a need to get hold of it immediately, walked over to the Harvard Bookstore but found they'd sold every single copy and had thirty more on order. Since I wanted it RIGHT THEN I sheepishly crept over to Barnes and Noble where they had a gazillion copies and bought one ("Read her earlier ones?" the cashier asked me. I said I'd read the first one & liked it, half of the second but stalled. He was also a fan of White Teeth and told me they'd sold at least fifty copies of On Beauty in the first week).

I linger on these details because it seems to me sad but true that this book's going to be a huge seller partly because it's so bland. It's a reasonably enjoyable read, sure, albeit of a kind that is not exactly my thing. (I was longing for, oh, a serial killer or a private investigator or a talking animal of some kind or a superhero, it reminded me how much I generally prefer novels that are not too much like life. This one is way too much like life, or like a thin slice of something passing for life--a Masterpiece Theater version of life, say, in 8 or 10 one-hour segments. I know too much of these places--even the North London ones, curiously my mother grew up in Willesden though my grandparents had scaled up to Highgate by the time I knew them, and I REALLY didn't feel like reading a novel about Harvard--and people and so on and it all seems much too campus-y. I make exceptions for certain campus novels I like, James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale was excellent and I am secretly fond of the academic satire/wizard universities of Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones and various others. But in general I avoid them for some of the same reasons I have no desire to write an academic blog: I absolutely love my academic life, but I get enough of it during the day to make me want something different the rest of the time.)

The campus novel question, though, is largely peripheral. The problem with this book lies in the writing. The prose feels under-edited, there are some careless phrases and lapses in diction (especially in the dialogue); even the main characters feel pretty thin because of this (the teenage brother Levi is the only real exception, he's much more alive than the rest of them but it's not enough to make things work). I always when I'm reading a book I really like am dogearing pages or sticking on post-its to mark great sentences or paragraphs, great because of the order of the words on the page as well as because of something perceptive or striking or fresh in the observation. I didn't find anything like that here, not a single passage. (OK, I did think the glee club scene at the end was pretty funny, but it remains a complete mystery why anybody even minds one way or the other about Howard Belsey and what he does, his charisma is so thoroughly told to rather than shown us.)

Scrolling back through this, I realize I have written something pretty negative. Let me clarify: I don't regret buying this book, I don't regret reading it, it was decent entertainment. (I must confess too that I have also always disliked the novels of E. M. Forster, especially Howards End.) On Beauty will probably disappoint those who care most for language, but there are other pleasures in its pages for novel-readers of all kinds. Smith is more modest about her own attainments as a novelist than most of her champions, too; if you took this book on her own terms, it would seem fair enough, I think. And here's a thoughtful and very positive review by Joy Press in the Village Voice to take away the bad taste of my criticism here.

Monday, September 26, 2005

This museum

sounds absolutely excellent (the story's by Dan Hurley, writing in the New York Times): "Where else but at the Archives of the History of American Psychology can visitors see the uniforms and billy clubs used in the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students ended up acting the role of guards all too realistically; watch a home movie of Freud batting fruit out of a tree with his cane; or have the bumps on their heads measured to calculate their personalities and career prospects with a 1933 psychograph?"

Akron, Ohio is the hometown for the tragic lovers in Dorothy Parker's The Ladies of the Corridor, which I saw recently in NY. And do I also dredge up the memory that Devo hailed from Akron?

Oh and if you have a thing

for literary criticism, do take a look at the third issue of the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism (CJLC), now online. This is an undergraduate journal of literary criticism, founded three years ago & definitely thriving (I was the faculty advisor in its first year & then again in 2004-2005); you will need to download the entire issue as a PDF file, but there's lots there worth a look, including short essays in memory of Derrida by a number of my Columbia colleagues and also (my favorite, I'm admittedly biased though since I have known its author ever since he was a student in my Literature Humanities section in fall 2001) a spectacular essay by Ramsey McGlazer called "Primo Levi's Language Lesson."

(Thanks to Gautam Hans for getting the issue online and sending me the link.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

I have always been fond

of the Michael Crichton kind of novel, this story is definitely in the fact-stranger-than-fiction category (it's Mark Townsend Houston writing in the Observer):

It may be the oddest tale to emerge from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Armed dolphins, trained by the US military to shoot terrorists and pinpoint spies underwater, may be missing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Experts who have studied the US navy's cetacean training exercises claim the 36 mammals could be carrying 'toxic dart' guns. Divers and surfers risk attack, they claim, from a species considered to be among the planet's smartest. The US navy admits it has been training dolphins for military purposes, but has refused to confirm that any are missing.


Alfred Nobel's father was an imaginative but impractical inventor who wanted to train seals to mine ships. (That's just an unrelated thought that comes out of my research for my new novel.)

(Link via Nico, who also sent the links for a truly demented set of pictures with a vaguely literary connection that have left me more or less speechless.)

I am not sure

if I haven't been reading novels because I'm feeling strange or if I'm feeling strange because I haven't been reading novels. However if it's the first there's nothing much to be done about it, so I tackled the second issue this afternoon by blowing off work to read the rest of Jonathan Lethem's truly amazingly good novel The Fortress of Solitude. It is not to my credit that it's taken me so long to come to Lethem's fiction; certain writers get that awful hipster-AND-critic anointed status and the hype rubs me the wrong way because of some shameful competitive (and also feminist or at least pro-female) instinct that makes me want to hold out against a general consensus of praise for prestigious guys. And yet every time I am kicking myself when I finally read the stuff: it is true for instance that The Corrections is not exactly my kind of novel (Franzen is too hard on all his characters, just as he is on himself in his first-person essays, there is something altogether too self-scourging and neurotic and ungenerous for it to be my favorite kind of thing) and yet it is a really extraordinary novel; I had this completely unreasonable prejudice against Michael Chabon, I don't even know how that came about, and then picked up Summerland at the local children's bookstore because it is so obviously the kind of book I love and ADORED it and then devoured The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and have indeed bought & given away multiple copies of each of those two (Kavalier and Clay's a good example, though, of a book whose paperback design was more appealing than the hardcover one, I am insulated from this by always having books from university libraries with no dust-jackets but in this case had the public library copy and was rather put off by the comic-book-ness of it all and returned it 2 weeks later without having read it, later of course was just HORRIFIED at having missed the chance at getting acquainted with this amazing novel a year sooner--a shameful admission b/c I like to think that my XX chromosome status has had no effect on my literary tastes, and of course there are lots of women who DO read a lot of comics, but I felt exactly the same way about the McSweeney's comics issue).

So I read an essay of Lethem's earlier this year in the New Yorker and loved it--I don't think there's a link online, and I can't remember the title, but it was a very list-like but also quite moving chronicle of his immersion in music and literature in film during his adolescent years and following the death of his mother, all written in great short sections with roman numerals; am I competely misremembering this or is that a fair account?--and then a student whose opinion I trust gave Lethem's name in response to the usual depth-mining "so who are the really good writers I should be checking out" question I ask the interesting early-twenty-something-year-olds of my acquaintance in case I'm missing out on something important.

This novel leaves me more or less speechless. (Those MacArthur folks were just right, as usual; their literary choices meet with my unqualified approval, I'm too lazy to link but think of them choosing Colson Whitehead and Lydia Davis and all sorts of other totally cool folks.) It gave me that feeling that I most value while reading a novel, a sense of being most immediately involved. And the language is mesmerizingly perfect--here's a sample paragraph, from pretty early on, that had me dog-earing the page in pleasure and envy:

Mingus fished in his lining for his El Marko, a Magic Marker consisting of a puglike glass bottle stoppered with a fat wick of felt. Purple ink sloshed inside the tiny screw-top bottle, staining the glass in curtains of color. Mingus drew out a safety pin and stuck the felt in a dozen places, pinning it out he called it, until the ink bled so freely it stained the light skin at his palm, then the green cuff of his oversize jacket. Dylan felt a quiver of the plasure he associated with his father's tiny brushes, with Spirograph cogs and skully caps.

What else did I love? The scene with Dylan and Robert Woolfolk and the beautiful mom in the park. Of course, the central scene about midway with Dylan and Mingus surprised--tactfully--by Barrett Rude, Junior. But also and especially the remarkably sympathetic portrait of the truly awful Arthur Lomb, who is presented with all his good and bad qualities in a loving picture that recognizes the cartoon-like qualities of such characters and works by way of almost transcription-like and perversely endearing dialogue ("Only thing that matters is the test for Stuyvesant. Just math and science. Flunk English, who gives? The whole report card thing's a joke, always was. I haven't gone to gym class once. You know Jesus Maldonado? He said he'd break my arm like a Pixy Stix if he caught me alone in the locker room. Gym's suicide, frankly. I'm not stripping down to my underwear anywhere inside the four walls of this school, I'm just not. If I have to BM, I hold it until after school"; "Mel Brooks's funniest film is The Producers, then Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles. Terri Garr is hot. I feel sorry for any kid who hasn't seen The Producers. My dad took me to all the humor movies. The best Panther is probably Return. The best Woody is Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"). We all knew/know these guys. But this then leads into an extraordinarily humane and perceptive reflection about the main character Dylan Ebdus's relationship to his impossible friend:

Positioning, positioning, Arthur Lomb was forever positioning himself, making his views known, aligning on some index no one would ever consult. Here was Dylan's burden, his cross: the accumulated knowledge of Arthur Lomb's smug policies on every possible question. The cross was Dylan's to bear, he knew, because his own brain boiled with pedantry, with too-eager trivia ready to burst loose at any moment. So in enduring Arthur Lomb Dylan had been punished in advance for the possibility of being a bore.

I think that is my favorite paragraph of any book I've read in the last year. MY brain is of course also boiling with eager trivia!

So I am adding this to my short list of particularly favorite novels; for reasons presumably autobiographical and temperamental I gravitate to novels that include children/music/growing up/cities and this one is well worth including in the group. The first and most obsessively reread (ah, 20 times would not be an excessive estimate, I love this book and ritually reread it every year or so) is Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows, then also the much-reread James Baldwin novel Just Above My Head (these two novels are so much my two best-loved twentieth-century novels that I do not understand why they are not on everybody's most-required-reading list); and more recently the absolutely excellent The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, which I must buy another copy of and reread, books I like I always give away (and BTW if you clicked on that last link, though I have a resolution not to make excessively indiscreet remarks on this blog in case I later am cutting a higher profile in the publishing world & regret early intemperance, I do think this is a particularly unfortunate example of the Marion Ettlinger author photo).

But Lethem's novel is particularly evocative for me, I so remember that "can I see that?" thing from the 70s (but he missed the more joyful "shoot!" Which is what you say when you see a car that you want, in reality or in a magazine--and for many, many years, though I was always a frighteningly good speller, I had only the vaguest phonetic idea of how you might write down the resonant words "Lamborghini Cantache S"), and the awfulness when you're the only white kid, and "Play that Funky Music"; I was not a graffiti type myself, though there might be one or two horrifying graffiti-related incidents in my past, but one of my brothers still goes by his old tag JonDoe (I am Jenny Doe in certain Philadelphia circles to this day), and I remember the walls of my brothers' rooms literally black with tags, it was a kind of compulsion wholly unstoppable by parents or landlords. We didn't call it yoking, but I remember sitting--incredibly foolishly, to this day I am sensitive about whether it is a good time/place to read/listen to music on public transportation rather than paying attention to what's going on--at the trolley stop on Germantown Avenue near my school in Philadelphia reading a book with my winter coat on my lap and having it snatched away from me and the shame and humiliation of listening to the other kids yell after the boy who took it "give the girl back her coat, man!," of course to no avail; or my brothers--identical twins--being stopped by a gang of kids on their way to school, stripped of their sneakers and then forced to punch each other out of some strange ritual twin-horror-uncanniness-white-harassment thing, and the worst of it was them having to walk the rest of the way to school barefooted--or in socks? I don't have the reality-effect detail here, I wasn't there, but surely socks are more likely--and explain what happened.

As an unrelated aside, I've got good news on my new academic book. I won't give details, since this is contingent on (a) me writing the rest of the book for a September 2006 submission date (I've written about 60%, two chapters that I submitted to the publisher in June along with the book proposal and one more chapter that I wrote in July-August; there are two more big chunks to write, then an all-out thorough revision over the summer of 2006) (b) it meeting with expert approval from the readers for the press and (c) me revising the final manuscript in accordance with those reports. But I am happy to say that the advance contract in the mail. (Metaphorically, and possibly literally as well.) It's a great university press, and a fantastically good editor who I'm very excited to work with on the project; so that's all good. Here's the brief description:

What determines a person’s character, nature or nurture? Investigating early modern British debates about human nature in the period before the coinage of modern scientific terms like biology and genetics, BREEDING: NATURE AND NURTURE BEFORE BIOLOGY uses a combination of history and close reading to sketch a way out of the current stalemate between liberal humanist and sociobiological accounts of human identity. By tracing eighteenth-century writers’ use of the term “breeding” to negotiate tricky questions about education and inheritance in relation to the physical properties of people, plants and animals, the book arrives at a fresh perspective on the terms that beat out “breeding” for talking about human identity in contemporary America.

And by the way, I am still stymied by the Blogger.com instructions about how to split up a long blog entry with an "after the jump" feature. So accept my apologies for this excessively long entry.

(Final detail. The book I was reading on the day my coat was stolen--I was in ninth grade, thirteen years old, and I had discovered it earlier that day in the school library with a thrill of delight and also a bit of mortification since I sort of thought I was too old for L'Engle's books now but this was a new installment in a series I had read with obsessive interest--was A House Like a Lotus.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Chomsky in Prada trainers"

A good interview with Gore Vidal at the Guardian. Vidal is one of those writers I'm sort of completely obsessed with, like Anthony Burgess, as a leftover from my youth; I think Julian is my favorite of his novels, but Burr and Lincoln and the other nineteenth-century American ones are all pretty great, as is his memoir Palimpsest.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Addendum in page-six vein

The book recommendation I forgot to add before along with the rest of my New York infodump is a fabulous collection of photos, Made in the UK: The Music of Attitude, 1977-1983 by Janette Beckmann. The photos are gorgeous and haunting; a friend--a friend who is far more fashionable than I, needless to say--dragged me to the gallery show/book release party (party photos here, fortunately none of me) at the powerHouse Gallery on Charlton St. two blocks south of Houston. The show's only up till October 6, but it's well worth seeing, stop by for a look if you're in the neighborhood (and there are some pictures at the gallery link). Then we went to the launch party for the new Paris Review issue; a very nice party all round (more my speed than the last, and also marginally less hot--everyone was still sweating like crazy, though). The celebrity highlight was riding down in the elevator with Salman Rushdie and his lovely wife, who I believe is also writing books these days. They had perfected an excellent "we are wholly oblivious to you no doubt pleasant but unknown people because we don't want to make you feel awkward" manner, you would have thought they were completely alone in the room. As good a tactic as any, no doubt; must be odd to have everyone staring.

Monday, September 19, 2005

I am very fond of the semi-colon

and in fact I would not hesitate to describe it as my favorite punctuation mark (I like periods too but it would be really spartan and minimalist to say that they were your favorite); and I've just been tipped off that there's a GREAT article in defense of the semicolon by Trevor Butterworth, writing this past weekend in the FT:

To the semicolonic, the case for is as compelling as a cocktail on a first date: you want to be relaxed, convivial, elegant - and neither a hectoring preacher nor a mumbling maniac. You want to woo with words. As the brothers Fowler wrote in their classic guide, The King's English, 'A style that groups several complete sentences together by the use of semicolons, because they are more closely connected in thought, is far more restful and easy - for the reader, that is - than the style that leaves him to do the grouping for himself; and yet it is free of the formality of the period... ' Or, as the great Cambridge literary critic F.L. Lucas advised in his masterful (and sadly out-of-print) Style, ' ...a writer should be able to vary his length; like a bowler.'

Just the other week I was telling a chapter-writer that I thought she had overused commas and underused semicolons; yet the point of this article is that semicolons are embattled and on the verge of extinction in American writing (or, in Butterworth's words, "Americans see the semicolon as punctuation's axis of evil"). Hmmm....

Sunday, September 18, 2005

NY is my spiritual home

but I am resolved to stop complaining about my basically self-imposed exile in Cambridge, Mass. (that's MASSACHUSETTS, not England--there is some cognitive thing that makes people hear the words "Cambridge" and "fellowship" and literally phase out the whole Mass. part and congratulate me on spending the year abroad). I must be allowed to give brief praise, though, for the completely idyllic five days I have just spent in NY, everything was perfect barring a few minor glitches (heat and humidity; blisters from having followed the principle of packing light rather than the principle of never wearing brand-new shoes on a 5-day trip without bringing a spare pair; a misunderstanding with some guests about what the words "till late" meant in the party invitation for my post-move going-away shindig on Saturday). But if there hadn't been anything like this, I would have thought I was in a Matrix-like fantasy, so perhaps it was just as well. (These were the offending shoes, by the way, though I blame myself for wearing them without socks; I had to splurge on a new pair of sneakers, which were pretty much these but with a beige stripe instead. I like how they look but they are not nearly as comfortable as you might hope, partly due to the damage already done by the previous shoe-wearing incident.)

I came down on Tuesday morning for a guest lecture to a very interesting group of students in Columbia's new Master of Arts in Journalism degree program; it was on a favorite book of mine, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, and I was pleased with how the conversation went (though not so pleased with the fact that the students had been asked to read it in a version like this, which is NOT a good idea for reasons that will be obvious if you click on the link).

I hung out over the course of the week with lots of my very favorite people (and got a huge haul of free books from one of them--in fact, everywhere I went, I accumulated books and CDs at an astonishing rate, it was a backbreaking load to get them all home again), saw an interesting and thought-provoking production of Dorothy Parker's incredibly depressing co-authored play "The Ladies of the Corridor", returned library books and shopped for/co-hosted the aforementioned party and also read three great novels (two quite closely comparable to each other, one completely different--guess which...): Marcy Dermansky's excellent hothouse-gothic-eating-disorder-neglectful-parent-fairytale Twins (I really liked this, though it has a rather voyeuristic appeal; I was incredibly relieved when it turned out to have what seemed to me a reasonably happy ending, though others may not find it so); the also altogether excellent and similarly dark Chasing Jordan by Heidi Boehringer (a Serpent's Tail book); and Thud! by the peerless Terry Pratchett.

(Then last night I passed Twins on to my brother M.'s girlfriend J., an identical twin dating an identical twin. Which led to much ribaldry among the male friends of the male twins when it started, though I think they have since grown acclimated. This book should have a warning sticker, it's that good! I hope she'll like it, it only occurred to me as I was giving it to her that it was really an extremely tactless present. My enthusiasm got the better of my manners.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

At the laundromat

earlier this evening I read most of a super-smart and extremely chilling noir novel from Hard Case Crime, The Confession by Domenic Stansberry. I just finished it--what a good book. It's a lot like this in spirit, but very modern too: really a great read.

(I am slightly mortified to confess that a few months ago I stood in a Barnes and Noble and read almost all of The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. There's something a bit trashy about the book itself, but it's absolutely and horrifyingly gripping, especially if you have ever been closely involved with someone like that. Which presumably we all have, one way or another.)

On a more mundane tangent, I feel that I have come down in the world, going from doing my laundry in the basement of my apartment building to sitting in a laundromat waiting for the dryer to finish. It is one of my small number of worldly aspirations to live somewhere sometime with my own washer and dryer: the lap of luxury. Even just a washing-machine would be good.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

I was just directed

by Steve's blog to a completely brilliant (also quite obsessive--it must have taken a lot of time and attention to write) blog post called (Ten Wishes After Six), which everyone should read if they are (a) strongly for or against Harry Potter books and/or (b) interested in what the blog form offers to someone interested in writing cultural criticism. Great writing.

It is amazing

but also slightly horrifying how little time I've had to read this week, I can't remember the last time so many days went by without me reading a novel (it is possible this is a sign of virtue--it's true I got a lot of work done and even [and more remarkably] quite a bit of exercise--but I don't really buy it, I think it's more because of the lighting in my sublet being inadequate and also I haven't yet had a chance to build a supply pipeline of suitably light reading--got my Harvard library card yesterday, though, so things should pick up soon).

However I've just finished a book of stories that I've been really looking forward to, and it completely lived up to my expectations: Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners. Everything in here is good--she's a fantastic writer--and for some reason although in general I have little time for short stories as opposed to novels, I have always made an exception for stories of the fantastic or the uncanny, it seems to me that the short-story form was perfectly made for this sort of thing. The most likeable story is "The Faery Handbag," the scariest is "Stone Animals" (an all-too-plausible account of what I secretly believe would happen to me if I went to live in the countryside at the end of a commuter rail line), but my favorite is definitely the title novella--it's almost like a short novel. It's got some great stuff about a demented TV show called The Library but the real-world aspects are most vivid as well. My favorite passage: "Jeremy comes home from school, feeling as if he has passed the math test, after all. Jeremy is an optimist. Maybe there's something good on TV. He settles down with the remote control on one of his father's pet couches: oversized and reupholstered in an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture. This couch looks as if its hobby is devouring interior decorators. Jeremy's father is a horror writer, so no one should be surprised if some of the couches he reupholsters are hideous and eldritch." Sharp, smart, funny, perceptive and genuinely unsettling.

While I'm on the topic of libraries, my strangest experience today was going into Widener, Harvard's main library, a place that I used to know extremely well. I've got an awful sense of direction so I'm not surprised at my vague disorientation on the streets of Cambridge, it's pretty pitiful since I lived here from 1988 to 1994 (with a year out in New York in the middle) but I never really pay that much attention to where I'm going. Cambridge is notoriously one of those towns where apparently parallel streets later diverge and suddenly it's forty minutes later and you thought it was a ten-minute walk and just when you thought you really were lost (this happened to me on my way home last night from my first day at the Academy) you realize you can see Mass Ave and you're just where you should be but took a ridiculously roundabout route. So as I say, that is more or less what I expected.

But libraries are what I really know, libraries are where I pay attention and can put my hand on exactly what I want, and though I vaguely remembered reading about renovations and though I was struck when I walked through the main door at the top of the front steps at (a) the whole electronic swipe set-up, which was just a gleam in someone's eye when I last used the library and (b) the brightness and lightness of the interior compared to its previous incarnation, I ambled up to the second floor in full expectation of seeing all the things I remember so fondly, the privileges desk and the long checkout area when you turn to the right and then again to the right the entrance to the stacks. And it was like one of those awful nightmares where nothing is where it should be and the house you live in has an extra room that you didn't know about and everything's completely strange.

After a moment of horror I looked at the floor plan and realized that everything is far, far more different than I had imagined. I walked back downstairs and took a few turns and found the new entrance to the stacks, highly convenient. And inside the stacks I discovered that some GENIUS must have been on the planning committee, a genius with a strong affinity for British literature and culture, because they have done something I never saw before but is COMPLETELY BRILLIANT and incredibly convenient for me in particular (all right, if you're not a library fiend who has some vague associations with random Library of Congress call numbers this is going to sound unbelievably obsessive, but it strikes me as REVOLUTIONARY AND LIFE-CHANGING!). RIGHT inside the front of the stacks are.... (drumroll) the DAs and the PRs! Now PR is English literature, and DA is British history, and in a 'normal' research library they are probably in two totally different places because, you know, the letters of the alphabet are different and it's a mind-bending problem to figure out how to arrange a gazillion volumes anyway and who could expect anything better. (PR--English literature--and PS--American literature--are usually right next to each other and this has a certain logic of its own, you find all English-language fiction on a single floor of the stacks.) But someone realized how sensible it is to put PR and DA together and actually did it. AND they put the British stuff right next to the door where it's the first thing you get to. I am thrilled.

I really do have an extreme fondness for the whole Library of Congress classification system. (If you have never thought about this, do take a look, it is a wonderful thing.) PR has to be my favorite, I read vastly more PR books than any other single category. But there are other ones I like too--Q's a good one--and I also think nostalgically of what I might call exes--call numbers I used to frequent all the time but now only encounter now and then. HQ and HV were particular favorites when I was an undergraduate. I read more B books when I was in grad school than I do now. I like T but it's often housed in a specialized library (the classes are disproportionate in size, even the best planners get carried away by systematizing). Z books are often funny-shaped and interesting to read. J and R are likely to be represented on my shelves at home.

Posting still very light over the next week or so, as I'll be in NY without reliable internet access from Tuesday to Sunday.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

An interesting interview

Robert Birnbaum interviews Frederick Busch at identitytheory.com. Thought-provoking conversation, but I find myself sometimes dissenting, as to this bit of the conversation:

RB: Is it too much it expect that having written close to thirty books, well regarded for the most part, that when your book comes out that you are automatically review-proof and will sell respectably?

FB: That's Stephen King. That's John Irving. They are review-proof. I don't think most of us are. Stephen King has the exact ability that Charles Dickens had. To get to his readers in spite of or despite anything the reviews say. Do you think Stephen King fans care? I had the audacity to review Stephen King's book on how to write.
You have to read history. You have to have a sense of history. In a way, I see my fiction as having moved in that direction--and the characters as dealing simultaneously with their personal history and with the present in which they are trying to make their way.

RB: You had written one of those.

FB: I did an anthology, Letters to a Fiction Writer, for Norton, and that's a number of essays by practicing writers. I said some snappy stuff about Stephen King, and I was cunningly disapproving of certain parts of him. And you know that book sold in numbers that are astonishing. He was just finishing off a contract.

RB: That doesn't seem to be a book that his core fans would be interested in.

FB: It's by him. He can reach anybody, his readers, and they are legion because he has many, many movies.


This is a mix of what seems to me fair and not fair. King and Dickens, fair; but the disparaging remarks about King's book on writing, perhaps not fair? I haven't read Letters to a Fiction Writer or the comments about King in its preface (one five-star Amazon reviewer offers the equivocal praise "The best book on writing fiction since Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird"). (Here's the full text of Busch's NYT review of King's book.) I don't think Busch means to be super-dismissive, but it comes off that way in the transcribed conversation, and this is what doesn't seem fair. I found King's On Writing absolutely mesmerizing. It's a memoir and an advice manual at the same time, and I read it in a single sitting: it's a great book, by any standard. It's as readable and interesting as his very best novels--I think his core fans would all like it very much (I mean, they seem to have, based on large number of Amazon reviews with many stars, but it is REALLY a good book by my standards) and I find it hard to believe it was written out of purely cynical motives. The movie line here is cheap, especially since (am I wrong about this? too lazy to look up, anyway) King has disavowed some of the higher-profile adaptations. I don't think Busch means to sound so elitist, but this comes off as one of those unfortunate highbrow-lowbrow confrontations that makes me cringe--I don't see the need for it at all.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Essayistic

Just finished the collection titled Rereadings : Seventeen writers revisit books they love, edited by Anne Fadiman. It's a great book, though it's not a lot of book for the money: I wouldn't have bought it but for that intangible mix of things that makes you pick up a book in a shop and not want to put it down again, which in this case included the facts that it's beautifully designed in a similar vein to Fadiman's excellent Ex Libris (Fadiman is an absolutely brilliant writer, her first book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is pretty much perfect) and I'm feeling naked of books in my Cambridge sublet and most particularly there's an essay in it on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, a story that I'm completely obsessed with (it provides the title and the framework for the as-yet-unwritten sequel to Dynamite No. 1).

Highlights:

Diana Kappel Smith on Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers ("Somewhere in its second year, the book's dust jacket, with all its pretty colors, began to disintegrate. I tore it up and used the bits to mark sites of future searches and past victories. When I ran out of dust jacket, I used whatever came handy--sticks, matchbook covers, strips torn from a package of peanut M&M's. This became part of the field guide's natural habiliments, like the topknot of a distressed parrot");

Luc Sante on Enid Starkie's New Directions biography of Rimbaud ("I read the book slowly, in part because it was dense and in part because I wanted to be seen reading it. I wore the book as much as I read it, 'absentmindedly' holding it in one hand on the street even when I was carrying a satchel of books in the other, 'casually' parking it atop my notebook next to my coffee cup wherever I sat. I proudly displayed it on the subway, at Nedick's and Chock full o' Nuts and the Automat, in garment-district cafeterias, at the juice stand in the passage from the IRT to the shuttle at Grand Central, in the bar car of the 5:30 express home (drinkless but trying to outsmoke everybody), maybe once or twice at some dump on St. Mark's Place that advertised Acapulco Gold ice cream");

Pico Iyer on D. H. Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy ("Growing up within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school, my friends and I took as our tokens of accomplishment the somewhat recherch'e gray volumes known as PEnguin Modern Classics. When I was in college, in the mid-1970s, Picador books would become the rage (Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Richard Brautigan--outlaw American energy packaged as real literature!); and, a decade later, in the sleek Manhattan of the 1980s, the Vintage Contemporaries series (born, it seemed, out of Bright Lights, Big City) would have a special cachet as some of us hobbled off to Area at 3:00 a.m. But in 1972, in rural, changeless England, where our allowances were scarcely large enough to stretch to three packages of McVitie's digestives every six months, and where we had to attend chapel twice a day, Latin hymns on Sunday nights, and class at 7:30 a.m.--all in white tie and tails--we could think of no better way to distinguish ourselves than through amassing these formidable gray paperbacks on our shelves");

and David Michaelis on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fadiman's introduction also appealingly describes the experience of reading C. S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy aloud to her son. The other essays are all strong too, there aren't any clunkers.

But my two favorites are clear, they're the two that make me passionately want to read the books talked about and the essay-writers' own books. The first is Michael Upchurch on Christina Stead's House of All Nations, a book I must clearly get and read at once since it sounds so exactly like something I would love. Here's Upchurch late in the essay:

One benefit of learning your own limits as a writer is reaching the point where, in reading a book, you recognize straight off that you can't make use of it--so you simply sit back and savor an author who, like an acrobat or a silversmith or a high-C soprano, does things you will never, with all the training and practice in the world, be able to do.

And the other is the essay that jumped out at me straight off, Barbara Sjoholm on "The Snow Queen." It's a great essay about an amazing tale, and it's also exactly what I'm obsessed with--she even visits the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland that is the first place I am going to go if I ever have a couple thousand dollars to blow on something wholly frivolous. (Well, I expect it would be tax-deductible because of the novel. Follow this link for pictures.) I must get Sjoholm's books: I particularly want to read her memoir Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood, published under the name Barbara Wilson.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

I did the most sensible thing

to make myself feel at home in Cambridge, which was to walk down Mass Ave to the Harvard Bookstore, which is the model of what an independent bookstore should be, and spend more money than I should have on books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Anne Fadiman and Daniel Defoe. This store is literally as well as figuratively my model--coming to Cambridge at age 17 from years spent as chiefly a library-goer plus incursions on the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton bookstores at the Gallery at Market East in Philadelphia, this store was an eye-opener and a money-suck and altogether a delight. It really is excellent--I don't have one in my neighborhood in NY that's this good, Labyrinth is very nice in its way but it's not really a novel-reader's store and it's also got that High Fidelityesque scorn for light reading which makes me end up buying tons of books from Amazon & feeling like a bad person for not supporting my local independent bookseller.

This store is perfect--I always like reading the Bookdwarf blog because of the window it provides into the store as well as many other good things. And I was especially happy to see that they've got Heredity as a staff recommendation, though there weren't any books on the shelf--they say they'll order more.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

I would give ten years of my life

to have written a book like the one I've just read, The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. (I'm not sure how you can get hold of it, though--the author was kind enough to send me a copy that fortunately arrived my last day in New York before the move, he knows I am completely fixated on his books & that they are incredibly difficult to obtain in the US--which is LUDICROUS. There is no better crime fiction writer around--in fact I will just venture to say there is no better novelist around. This is seriously good stuff.)

Temple is an amazing stylist: I have commented before on his charming way with a hyphen ("The vinegary couple from the newsagency were in their shop doorway, mouths curving southwards. Triple-bypassed Bruce of the video shop was beside saturated-fat dealer Meryl, the fish and chip shop owner") and his excellent use of technical vocabulary and his general all-round greatness, see here and here for previous posts. His writing's also extremely funny (in a dry way amidst lots of violence and general dark-night-of-the-soul atmosphere), and he brings to fiction a top-quality journalist's understanding of the workings of money and power and land and the seamy side of human nature. But they're also great books about family and depression and despair (aren't they sounding cheery? No, really, they are the most delightful books) and the protagonists are curiously endearing, they make human bonds in spite of their jaundiced view of the world. I guess the thing that blows me away is what an all-rounder Temple is as a fiction writer (plus his writing's perfectly to my taste, I know some people like more extravagance but I prefer things that look deceptively plain at first glance): he's good at character and dialogue and description and sentence-writing and plot and setting and intellectual heft and politics and just EVERYTHING.

I have loved all his books; the only one published in the US is Identity Theory [published in Australia under the rather better title In the Evil Day], but it's well worth ordering a used copy of one of the Jack Irish ones via Abebooks or getting hold of any of the others by hell or high water--i.e. impossibly high overseas shipping charges.

This one's as good as the others in terms of its being a very great pleasure to read, but it shows a new level of ambition that puts it in the "great Australian novel" category--his others are seriously good books too, in other words, but this one's an absolutely amazing thing. Here's a passage I especially liked, but you can find things this interesting and striking and beautifully written on every page (this one just has that expert-knowledge vocabulary thing going, which I especially love). Cashin is the protagonist, a homicide detective wounded in a shootout where his partner was killed, now on leave & camping out in a ruined house in the countryside, and Rebb's an itinerant hitchhiker guy Cashin picked up after he camped out on someone's property and took home rather than turning in for vagrancy, although Rebb still won't tell Cashin his real name. Here they're building a fence:

After that they strung wire, four strands, bottom strand first, working from the middle strainer post, using a wire strainer, a dangerous-looking device. Rebb showed Cashin the knot used to tie off the bowstring-taut wire around the post.

"What's that called?"

"What?"

"The knot, the wire knot."

"What's it matter?"

"Well," said Cashin, "no names, the world's all grunts and signs language."

Rebb gave him a long sidelong look. "Called a strainer hitch, you've got no use for that name. Have a look for mine?"

Cashin hesitated. You didn't talk about things like this. "Your name? Had a look, yeah. That's my job."

"Find anything?"

"Not yet. Covered your tracks well."

Rebb laughed. It was the first time.

They worked. The dogs came, interested, bored, left, other things to do. When they were finished, it was almost mid-afternoon, no food eaten. Cashin and Rebb stood at the high point and looked down the line. It ran true, the posts straight, the low light singing silver off the new wire.


(Charmingly the dogs are black standard poodles, a particular favorite of mine.)

There's one strange copy-editing glitch, an "I said" where it should be "Cashin said" that makes me wonder whether this book was first drafted in the first-person voice and then rewritten in the third. I love first-person narrators, but there's no doubt that part of this book's success is in the scope you get from moving outside--though not too far outside--the main character's head. This book's a model for me, I've got to do one more rewrite on my novel (I was disheartened to read Philip Roth in the Sunday Times Book Review talking about how he rewrote his earlier books 5 or 6 or 7 times only because he didn't know what he was doing and a really good novelist knows how to do it right the first time--at least that was what I took away from it) and it's also got a third-person limited voice that sticks extremely close to the main character's point of view but that I haven't quite got working yet, the character's emotional life stubbornly refuses to open up enough to the reader. Hmmm....

Posting is likely to be sporadic here in the first half of September: as well as being depressed by hurricane news and wiped out by moving, I've got all the work that I didn't get done before I left NY to catch up on. Most pressing, two book reviews, but a lot of other stuff too, including a fun last-minute invitation that I couldn't resist although it means coming back to NY sooner than I expected (well, that was probably part of the appeal) to lecture on Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and fact and fiction in the early days of print journalism to the students in the new MA program at the Columbia School of Journalism. So not too much novel-reading in the short-term future, I fear.

And

this is a book that I really must read! It sounds quite amazing: seriously, follow the link and read the story. Here's the book's Amazon UK link (the synopsis makes it sound absolutely DREADFUL, by the way, it's written in the kind of cliches that surely Alison Lapper herself would be rolling her eyes at); I guess it's not being published in the US.

There's a great piece about Zadie Smith

in the Guardian Review--the interviewer did a really good job getting her to be so forthcoming. My favorite part (i.e. the part where she says something I completely agree with...) is where she says how pleased she was to learn that writers are "'so like their books. And that really blew me away. It also released my criticism because you realise that it's the full man who's writing. The faults he makes in his prose are often the faults he makes in his life.'" Also an odd observation from the novelist Lisa Appagnanesi, mother of one of ZS's friends at university: Appignanesi says that Smith is "very beautiful to look at. That's changed. She wasn't always. She has worked at turning herself into this beautiful young woman. I see that as another tribute to her, a kind of overcoming. The will to transform things - she can transform base matter to make literature, she has transformed herself." I don't know--I remember the awful contrast between the author photo on her first book and the second one, the first one is SO much more appealing to me (and to all of the friends I remember discussing it with at the time), really much more beautiful in a way (can't seem to find a link, sorry). The phrase "base matter" is pretty tactless! But of course if Zadie Smith wants to be a glamour-queen, it's her prerogative, I don't mean to criticize. I am looking forward to reading On Beauty; I liked White Teeth a lot, though I'm afraid I didn't read The Autograph Man (had it from the public library, read the first couple chapters, then it was due back and somehow I never quite bothered to get it again--I'm rather afraid it's that kind of a book. Not bad, but not gripping either).